Texas A&M preview: Improving defense, explosive offense gives Aggies a chance

Oct 3, 2015; College Station, TX, USA; Texas A&M Aggies head coach Kevin Sumlin watches warm ups prior to a game against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Kyle Field. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 3, 2015; College Station, TX, USA; head coach Kevin Sumlin watches warm ups prior to a game against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Kyle Field. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

By
TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief

Oct. 14, 2015

Over its first few seasons after joining the SEC, Texas A&M felt like a jigsaw puzzle missing a couple of pieces.

The Aggies found those missing pieces after they hired , the former Tennessee and LSU defensive coordinator, to coach them at the same position. Chavis immediately brought a toughness to the job that the Aggies had been lacking. Although Texas A&M is far from a defensive powerhouse in 2015, the improvement is noticeable, and more is expected in the future.

enters this game coming off its second physical test in a row. has beaten Georgia and Arkansas in successive weeks, and now must face the high-powered spread attack brought by Texas A&M. With rival Tennessee coming to Tuscaloosa the week after this game, many fans are worried that this contest has all the makings of a textbook trap game and upset.

OFFENSE

Texas A&M runs a full-blown spread attack, to the point that the Aggies typically eschew a tight end for a fourth wide receiver in its base set, and use running back Tra Carson as more of a decoy than a featured part of the offensive set. Productivity has lagged previous years somewhat, thanks in part to a young quarterback and an offensive line that hasn’t played up to some prognosticators’ projections. Texas A&M ranks 23rd in passing offense and 20th in total offense, but just 51st in rushing offense. Alabama will counter with its multiple pro-style attack that has sputtered at times this season, but has maintained balance and still does a decent job at putting up points.

 Sep 26, 2015; Arlington, TX, USA; Texas A&M Aggies quarterback Kyle Allen (10) throws on the run against the Arkansas Razorbacks at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 26, 2015; Arlington, TX, USA; Texas A&M Aggies quarterback (10) throws on the run against the Arkansas Razorbacks at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

QUARTERBACKS
has alternated between being Alabama’s biggest problem on offense or one of its most key players. Coker’s outing against Arkansas played to type, with his first half a dismal (albeit surprisingly accurate) effort, followed by a dynamic second half. Coker’s arm strength and ability to get away from pressure are his biggest strengths, but the first half of the Arkansas game saw him missing far too many open receivers running in the pattern. If there’s any comfort to Alabama fans here, it’s that Coker seems to be more focused during Alabama’s road games.

Texas A&M will start sophomore Kyle Allen, who has had better year (and certainly a more efficient year) statistically, especially in regards to TD-INT ratio (13-to-2), but who still lacks consistency himself. Allen and Coker are comparable runners, and while Coker may have more raw arm strength, Allen is much more accurate and more comfortable running a complex passing attack. Freshman Kyler Murray is Allen’s backup, a rising star in his own right and a player who could pressure Allen for the starting job in future seasons. backs up Coker for UA, and is accurate and athletic, if not strong-armed. If Coker plays in this game the way he played at Georgia, this category will be much closer than it looks at this point. Advantage: Texas A&M

RUNNING BACKS
Tra Carson has carried 95 times for 430 yards (4.5 avg.) and 4 touchdowns. He’s a bigger running back than Texas A&M has typically used, but the Aggies don’t have much of a downhill running game. The Aggies have tended to prefer backs like Brice Dolezal or Kwame Etwi, 5’9”, 180-pound scatbacks who can get quickly to the edge. Dolezal and Etwi average 5.4 and 8.6 yards per carry, respectively, so there’s some value to the approach in a spread offense. The team’s second-leading rusher is actually the quarterback, Kyle Allen, and backup Kyler Murray comes after Etwi and Dolezal. Texas A&M does not use a fullback; Austin English is listed at the position but he has yet to play.

Alabama counters with , who has power and breakaway ability but who tends to struggle a bit against quicker defensive lines at times. Still, Henry’s 5.5 yards per carry and 10 touchdowns are tough to beat. Kenyan Drake will back him up, with true freshmen Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough potentially in the mix. Michael Nysewander gives Alabama a legitimate option at fullback. Depth here is about even, but Henry is able to do more things than the limited Carson. Advantage: Alabama

WIDE RECEIVERS
Texas A&M hasn’t lived up to potential thus far in 2015. The exception has been true freshman Christian Kirk, who has caught 32 passes for 519 yards (16.2 avg.) and 4 touchdowns. Kirk is also a threat to run on jet sweeps. He’s not an overly big player (5’11”, 195 pounds), but he is fast and fluid. The other starters will be Josh Reynolds, Damion Ratley and . Of that trio, Reynolds has been the surprise breakout player, while Seals-Jones has been outright disappointing. Texas A&M will probably be without the services of , and if Noil does play, he won’t be close to 100 percent. Texas A&M doesn’t use a tight end in its base set, but Jordan Davis and Caden Smith will split the position. Both players have a single catch for 3 yards on the year, which illustrates the fact the Aggies consider the tight end to be a blocking position. With Noil hurt, the backups will be Ed Pope, Boone Niederhofer, Jeremy Tabuyo and Sabian Holmes, none of which has shown much this year.

Alabama counters with a group headed by true freshman Calvin Ridley, with Richard Mullaney and filling important supporting roles. Cameron Sims, Daylon Charlot and Chris Black will provide depth. Alabama is still in the process of finding a tight end to play opposite O.J. Howard. Dakota Ball, Brandon Greene and Hale Hentges all have seen time there. backs up Howard. Because of Texas A&M’s struggles, this one is much closer than it first might appear, particularly given Alabama’s strong advantage at tight end. But the Aggies have the better upside, and talented players don’t typically struggle for entire seasons. Advantage: Texas A&M

OFFENSIVE LINE
In addition to being just so-so at run blocking, the Aggies have allowed far too many sacks. Texas A&M ranks 95th nationally in the category. Mike Matthews is a good center and Joseph Cheek a good player at guard, but the rest of the unit is troubled. Right tackle Germain Ifedi was expected to be the next great A&M lineman, but it hasn’t really gone that way. The left side of the line – tackle Avery Gennesy and guard Jeremiah Stuckey – has been problematic. Jermaine Eluemunor might play some at guard, as could freshman Keaton Sutherland. Koda Martin and Coda Lanfear provide depth.

Alabama counters with Ryan Kelly at center flanked by guards and Ross Pierschbacher and tackles Dominick Jackson and Cam Robinson. Pierschbacher has become a dependable option at guard, while Robinson has immense talent at tackle but has been inconsistent. Alabama has the edge in depth, which includes Bradley Bozeman at center and guard, along with J.C. Hassenauer inside and Lester Cotton at tackle. Neither group is playing to potential, but Alabama’s depth edge pushes the ahead slightly. Advantage: Alabama

DEFENSE

Texas A&M’s top recruit for 2015 might have been a 59-year-old. John Chavis swapped to Texas A&M from LSU and the results have been immediate. While the Aggies are still growing comfortable with Chavis’ 4-3 schemes, and have much room for improvement left, there’s no denying the 2015 defense looks much more competent than the 2014 edition. Rushing defense is still a problem (85th) but the Aggies appear to have turned a corner on pass defense somewhat. Alabama counters with its 3-4 over/under scheme that is steadily becoming one of the best defenses in the country. Alabama is 4th against the run and ranks 6th in total defense, and the front line is a monster.

DEFENSIVE LINE
Alabama’s defensive line is the best in the country and is almost endlessly customizable depending on the opponent. Against Texas A&M, A’Shawn Robinson and Daron Payne will man the middle, with , Dalvin Tomlinson, Jarran Reed, D.J. Pettway and Da’Shawn Hand playing the outside positions. Darren Lake and Josh Frazier offer depth inside. Alabama ranks 28th in sacks despite not employing a sack-heavy scheme.

Texas A&M has one of the premier pass rushers in the country in defensive end , who has 9.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. Daeshon Hall has been just as impressive at the other end slot (6.5 TFL, 5 sacks) if for no other reason than his performance was unexpected. Julien Obioha and Alonzo Williams will start at the tackle positions. They can be active as gap-shooting linemen against running games, but haven’t been so hot as pass rushers.

The primary issue is size; Obioha is 265 pounds playing tackle in a 4-3 in the SEC. This is definitely a transition year for Texas A&M, but the only thing in transition relative to Alabama’s defensive front are the running backs who transition from alive to dead when hit. Advantage: Alabama

Oct 10, 2015; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Arkansas Razorbacks quarterback Brandon Allen (10) gets hit following a pass by Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker Reggie Ragland (19) and linebacker Tim Williams (56) during the first quarter at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 10, 2015; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Arkansas Razorbacks quarterback (10) gets hit following a pass by Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker (19) and linebacker Tim Williams (56) during the first quarter at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

LINEBACKERS
This was going to be a problem spot all along for Texas A&M, as all three starters were new coming into the year, depth was questionable, and the new starters almost completely unproven. A.J. Hilliard will start in the middle flanked by Otaro Alaka and Shaan Washington on the outside. The three have combined for only 1 sack and their effectiveness against the run has been spotty at best. Depth is razor-thin, with only Josh Walker getting significant snaps off the bench. He’ll back up the middle, while Claude George spells the outside players.

Alabama counters with , and Reggie Ragland on the inside, along with Denzel Devall, Dillon Lee, Ryan Anderson, Tim Williams and Rashaan Evans rotating outside. After two weeks as one of the most important players in the defense, don’t look for much of Dillon Lee, as Alabama takes the strongside linebacker off the field when in a nickel or dime look. The biggest question is how much speed rushers Williams and Evans will play given the Aggie OL’s penchant for yielding sacks. Chavis will have Texas A&M playing better football quickly, but for now, this is a solid Tide edge. Advantage: Alabama

DEFENSIVE BACKS
Both teams rank about the same in pass defense numbers, but the devil is in the details. De’Vante Harris and , both seniors, start at cornerback for the Aggies, while Armani Watts and Justin Evans hold down the safety positions. The best player in the group may actually be situational nickel safety Donovan Wilson, who has been more active in opponents’ backfields than any of the linebackers. If there’s a problem here, it’s that A&M continues to yield big chunks of yardage, although the frequency of such is much lower than in past years.

Alabama will counter with Cyrus Jones and Marlon Humphrey at the corners, with Geno Matias-Smith and at the safety spots and a combination of Minkah Fitzpatrick, Ronnie Harrison, Maurice Smith, and Laurence Jones providing depth. Texas A&M is getting better, but it isn’t in Alabama league just yet. Advantage: Alabama

SPECIAL TEAMS
Taylor Bertolet will always be right on the edge as a placekicker, but he’s missed only two kicks this year so far and seems to have stabilized the position. Daniel LaCamera will back him up. Behind Drew Kaser, Texas A&M has been strong in net punting (18th) and Kaser has a 51.0-yard gross average. The Aggies have also been potent in the return game, ranking 4th in punt returns, but the loss of Speedy Noil reduces Aggie depth here.

Alabama doesn’t seem to know what it has week-to-week. has missed half his field goal attempts, and his accuracy hasn’t seemed to be affected by distance yet. is getting back on track at punter. Punt returns are OK, but Alabama has struggled badly on kickoff returns. The Crimson Tide ranks 99th there and by watching, it doesn’t even feel that high. Advantage: Texas A&M

OVERALL

Alabama leads in five categories, Texas A&M in three. Alabama strongly controls the matchup of its DL vs. the Texas A&M OL. The reverse matchup is a push at worst and a slight Alabama advantage at best, as the Aggies’ depth issue along the interior line should offer Alabama plenty of opportunity to run the football.

Overall, this game will turn on Alabama’s ability to do just that. If Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake have successful days against the Aggie rush defense, the Crimson Tide will win easily, unless QB Jake Coker just starts throwing interceptions because he’s bored. While John Chavis is a strong defensive coordinator, he is not a miracle worker, and A&M has some significant holes in its defense (interior DL, LB corps) due to circumstances not of Chavis’ making.

As much time as A&M spends exploring new offensive wrinkles, this game will come down to surprisingly basic elements: blocking and tackling, line play, minimizing mistakes.

Alabama 31
Texas A&M 20

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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